Why Is My Dog Eager to Be Pet One Minute and Growling the Next?

Updated on May 23, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Why is my dog friendly one moment and aggressive the next?
Why is my dog friendly one moment and aggressive the next? | Source

Why Is My Dog So Unpredictable?

Did you ever find yourself thinking that your dog has a dual-personality, closely resembling the canine version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde? Is your dog one minute friendly with your guests and the next growling, barking, or even snapping? It is normal to feel quite upset, especially if you have invested lots of time in socializing and training your dog, and if this is a fairly new behavior.

As a dog trainer, it is not uncommon for me to hear about owners wondering why their dog has drastically changed. Luckily, there are some possible explanations for this behavior, however, good management and a strategic plan are a must to help Rover gain back that stable temperament owners are missing so badly.

Causes for Such Unpredictable Behaviors

Often, dog owners assume their dog is acting out of protection. In true protection however, you would expect some sort of threat going on. Dog trainer and behavior consultant Pam Young claims ''true protection dogs are FRIENDLY to people when their owner has no reason to feel threatened.'' The following are some potential causes for unpredictable Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde syndromes.

Pain and Medical Conditions

Many dogs go into a ''Dr Jeckyl Mr Hyde'' attitude when they have on and off ear infections. In this case, it hurts being pat on the head, especially when the ears are hot and inflamed! Pain therefore is a plausible and understanding trigger that may cause similar reactions, however, there are other medical conditions known to cause aggression in previously friendly dogs such as hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease.

Weak Nerves

Most dogs are not protective or guarding, so if your dog is reacting to friendly people in non-threatening scenarios, what you are seeing is likely a case of ''weak nerves'' or perhaps, simply a dog telling people petting him that he has had 'enough'. It may be difficult to determine without seeing his body language whether your dog is trying to convey ''you are making me uncomfortable'' or if he is saying a more assertive ''I have had enough, now back off!'' kind of statement.

Second Fear Stage

If the dog is between 6 and 14 months old, it could he or she is going through its second fear period, according to ''Diamonds in the Ruff.''

  1. ''Many dogs will show a rise in their level of aggression (reactivity) during this time. In large breeds this period could extend longer since it is tied to sexual maturity. Incidents may occur more than once. Corresponds with growth spurts. Therefore it may happen more than once as the puppy matures.''
  2. ''May suddenly be apprehensive about new things or shy or timid of new people or situations.''
  3. ''This is a fear of new situations and are handled with the utmost patience.''
  4. ''It is better to ignore the whole situation than to reinforce the fear by praising the dog or petting him while he is afraid. When you "reassure" a dog with pets and "it's okay, fella", you are telling him it is okay to be frightened and you are creating a potential problem.''
  5. ''Build confidence through training.''

Dislike of Head Pats/Hugs

Are people patting your dog on the head? Many dogs do not do well being pat on the head. His growling therefore may be your dog's way to say ''I do not like this approach''. Many dogs do better with a chest rub. Patricia McConnell in her book ''For the Love of a Dog'' claims that wolf researchers claim to use head pats to discourage pushy wolves and have them leave! Many dogs dislike hugs. Read the reasons why

Aloofness and ''I've Had Enough'' Syndrome

If your dog does well for the first few seconds of being pet and then becomes aggressive after a while, it could be they are OK with an initial introduction and then have simply had enough. Some dogs become a bit more aloof as they grow, while others may simply want to be ''in charge'' of their interactions. Even with other dogs, they may be OK with a dog sniffing them for a few seconds, but then they may change attitude if the interaction is longer than what they are comfortable with.

If this is the case, make the introduction with your friends very brief, simply have the people let him sniff their hands, and then if he seems friendly, have them ask him a sit. If he complies, let them give a brief pat followed by a treat. This should accomplish several things:

  1. It should significantly reduce his chances for growling and the less he growls the more likely the behavior will extinguish.
  2. It should leave a positive impression since it leaves him craving for more. Just as you would stop a training session on a positive note, try doing the same when he is around people.
  3. The command should diffuse any tension since it will help the dog concentrate on something else other than being reactive.
  4. By petting briefly before delivering the treat the dog should learn to associate being pet with a treat, and therefore increase his willingness to be pet. He may therefore with time, perhaps tolerate gradually longer petting sessions, however, avoid this if you cannot read signs of increasing stress and discomfort. You want to make safety your top priority and keep your dog comfortable, always ending your session on a positive note. Many times when dogs react upon being pet, the interaction was too long and too close and personal for the dog's taste. Keep it short and sweet if your dog wants attention, so to put him to success. Don't put him in the situation of having to communicate "I had enough".

Conflict Aggression

It's worth mentioning ''conflict-related aggression,'' where dogs exhibit ambivalent signs, like one moment they want to be pet, and the next they are aggressive and no longer in the mood. According to the Purdue University Animal Behavior Clinic: ''Affected dogs learn to use aggression to get themselves out of any uncomfortable situation. The aggression is reinforced because the anticipated "bad" event does not occur.''

Growling, therefore, becomes a way for the dog to protect itself from perceived harm (which may be unfounded), and therefore terminates the uncomfortable situation, and since most likely your friends stop petting him the moment he growls, the growling is reinforced and puts roots.

Has Your Dog Ever Growled at People?

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

  • Why does my Labrador suddenly switch between the happiest sweetest dog there is and suddenly snapping at our hands if he is being petted? Usually, he is the one that is initiating the pets, and if he wants no more he walks away, but sometimes he just bites out of nowhere with no visible indications it's coming.

    There can be various causes for this behavior. Has he always been this way or is this a new behavior? If it's a new behavior, it might be worthy of seeing the vet. Keep record of whether this behavior takes place when he is touched in a particular area. Also, worthy of wondering is whether the times he tries to bite is because he is being cornered or restrained in some way that prevents him from walking away.When dogs can't move away, they are likely to become defensive and bite. Is this a puppy? If so, he needs to learn to enjoy being handled. This can be done by petting briefly praising and then feeding a treat, pet/treat, pet/treat, pet/treat for several sessions, gradually increasing the time he is being pet, until he looks forward to being pet because he has asociated with all these good things. He can also be pet briefly before being released to go eat his meal. This method can be used as well with older dogs, but I would recommend seeing a trainer or behavior consultant for safety and correct implementation.

  • My chihuahua used to let me pet her. She is usually very affectionate and loves being petted, but all of a sudden she starts growling and biting at me when I pet her. Why is this?

    There can be various possibilities. Perhaps you did something that may have startled her in the past, although not intentional. Some things as innocent like a sneeze, sudden laughter, coughing, dropping things on the floor at times may startle dogs, and they may not like to be approached. In some cases, small dogs may not like to be picked up to be petted. At times, it can be the dog is suffering from some health issue that makes being petted painful (ear infection, neck/back pain, etc.). Some dogs may like to be pet, but they get tired of it soon and tell owners they had enough by growling. There can be many more explanations such as using a different perfume that bothers the dog, the emotion of the person, etc.

  • My dog is very friendly and wants attention from everyone. But sometimes, with certain people, he becomes aggressive. Even though he might growl or snap at one of those friends, he always goes back to them for more attention. Why does this happen, and why with only a select number of people? My dog is a large mixed breed, neutered, four-years-old and has always had this behavior.

    There is likely some pattern going on, but it is not being noticed. In behavior terms, we are looking for the "antecedent" in other words exactly what is triggering the behavior. It could be anything as subtle as not being comfortable around people with blue eyes, wearing hats, smelling like alcohol or approaching him in a certain way. It sounds like though he recovers afterward and approaches again. Something to consider as well is whether perhaps he dislikes being touched in a certain way. Until the underlying trigger is found, it may be difficult working on the problem because we do not know what is causing it. In the meanwhile, please use caution as these behaviors may escalate. Perhaps a behavior professional can help pinpoint the problem and suggest a behavior modification plan.

  • Why does my little dog growl every time I pet him?

    It sounds like he may be uncomfortable. Some dogs do not enjoy being petted. It could also be he has some sort of pain going on. Small, sensitive dogs in particular who often go to the groomers may become hand shy or not very tolerant of being handled/touched in the long term.

  • Do you give referrals for animal behavior specialists? I'm having issues with a couple of behaviors from asking for affection and then biting to growling and snapping when he is sleeping and other defensive behavior in general. He is almost three, neutered, and didn't show any of these behaviors the first year or so. I'm looking for some professional help.

    I do not offer referrals specifically, but generally, a DACVB can be a good place to start since sometimes defensive behaviors can be seen in dogs due to medical problems. Since your dog hasn't shown any signs prior to the first 1.5 years, you may want to rule out medical problems first before considering behavior modification. A DACVB is a board-certified veterinarian specializing in behavior, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

© 2011 Adrienne Janet Farricelli


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      2 weeks ago

      Nashmom, it is difficult to put ourselves in a dog's mind and find the exact cause that may trigger dogs to act that way. It may often be subtle things such as the dog may feel intimidated by certain aspects of a person, but not others. Perhaps he finds his voice a bit deep and scary and he doesn't like when he is up and around versus sitting which is less intimidating. He sounds like he really wants to like him, but there are some things that scare him and trigger him to growl. Medical reasons should always be ruled out to play it safe. Behavior modification for such cases generally involves finding the exact triggers with the help of a professional and using desensitization and counterconditioning techniques.

    • profile image

      Nash Mom 

      3 weeks ago

      Hi - I have a 4 year old lab mix, we adopted him about 3 months ago. He comes to the office with us daily and loves every guy in the office, gets extremely excited to come to the office each day. He started acting aggressive to one of my co workers/ other dog dads who he previously loved and always used to get excited to see. This behavior started last week and has persisted since. Specific behavior to note, whenever he talks or stands up Nash will growl or bark. He will also run up to him with a wagging tail sometimes and look for pets but then quickly start growling and barking at him and then circle back to get pet and so on. What could have caused this behavior out of no where? Could it be a medical reason? Any advice I would appreciate.

      I should mention he has exhibited similar behavior to my brother at first and a female friend that were at my house last week also so I don't think its just this person or a male thing. The behavior did not continue towards them the next day though unlike my co worker.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 weeks ago

      Cbrown1018,This is a delicate situation that requires the intervention of a dog behavior professional using force-free methods for safety and correct implementation of behavior modification. Although a muzzle can prevent bites, it shouldn't be used to expose your dog to children because that won't do much in changing your dog's emotional response towards children. Ideally, a muzzle is used in conjunction with behavior modification, which aims in keeping the dog under threshold and changing the dog's emotions towards children through the use of desensitization an counterconditioning.

    • profile image


      3 weeks ago

      Just got Spazz from the shelter. He's a miniature Dachshund mix. He Loves women, is ok with my husband and grandson but chases down children and tries to bite them. How do I correct this type of behavior? I'm terrified he'll really hurt someone and am buying a muzzle for when I know kids will be nearby. I hate using this type of thing,but I don't know what else to do.And we aren't going to return him to the shelter.

    • profile image

      Alise G. 

      6 weeks ago

      My boyfriend has a Rottweiler (8yrs). He adores my boyfriend and likes affection even with me but sometimes while I pet him he will all of a sudden growl low. I thought it was maybe a particular place I touch but I noticed it's a different spot every time. He is a good dog except for that behavior of growling. He does it with strangers sometimes but I have been living with him for a year and it still happens on occasion. I have no idea what it can be and I want to approach it in a positive way rather than negative.

    • profile image

      Julia e evans 

      2 months ago

      My dog oaws me to stroje him but then growls!!???

    • profile image

      Tammy Brooks 

      5 months ago

      I have a terrier mix she is2 1/2 yrs old. We got her fixed at 6 months. Ever since then she is sweet in the morning most of the time. However as the day goes on especially towards night(sometimes earlier) she gets aggressive with our other dogs and us. Example: my husband was sitting on the couch at 1 end she was on the other end he moved his foot and she started showing teeth and went after him. She will lay in my lap or beside me in the chair and if I move the slightest she will growl at me. We have 3 other dogs and she will attack them for no reason. I love her and when she is sweet she is very sweet but that is becoming less often now. I am thinking about getting rid of her before she hurts someone. Any suggestions or help I would appreciate it. The thought of getting rid of a dog breaks my heart

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      10 months ago

      Emily, normally for cases reactivity towards other dogs on walks I would work with the owners in person and suggest implementing behavior modification such as LAT https://pethelpful.com/dogs/Changing-Dog-Behavior-...

      However, the fact that he re-directs his arousal and sometimes growls at you, makes your case somewhat more concerning. I would suggest rather than sending your pup to doggy school, which I guess you are referring to a board and training program, working instead with a dog trainer /behavior consultant for safety and correct implementation. Look for one that uses positive, humane dog behavior modification and who can eventually coach you on walks. Best wishes!

    • Emily0115 profile image


      10 months ago

      I took my puppy from a dog foster home about a year ago. I love him to bits; he has a great personality, and I feel that he loves our family so much. BUT, whenever I take him for a walks, we have problems. He hates other dogs and sometimes even growls at us. My husband and I were thinking about taking him to 'doggy school', but then again, it’s extremely expensive, and the nearest 'doggy school' is far away from us. Maybe you have some advice? THANK YOU!!!!

    • profile image


      12 months ago

      My dog fits into the category of had-enough. I am not sure that the solution you suggest is practicable as it would have to involve too many strangers. My dog looks so cute everybody wants to pet and hug her-like a large, soft teddy bear. But I found your article useful in validating my hunch and I will have to find a way to manage her behaviour and that of other's towards her. I can understand that at 4 years age,and giant size, she really does not want to be treated like a cuddly toy. Thank you.

    • profile image


      15 months ago

      Okay, so you lay out a lot of options with great information and solutions, but then on the very last option which actually makes sense for our dog.... No solutions or even a conclusion.... Sadly, for us, beyond at least giving us an indication of the issue, this article has been no help.

    • profile image

      Jaelon Hunter 

      22 months ago

      We have 2 huskies and one is acting more on the aggressive side and is looking at house hold members as food and making small nips at others he is 8yrs old

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      It's 12 at night and my backyard it connected to the side door of the neighbors. I let my dog out and a man I never seen before comes around the corner speaking to me. He tells me he has a german shepard and that the pit bull is the girls that lives there. My dog sniffs him let's him pet him then backs off very aggressively and stands behind me barking at the man. The guy shakes my hand tells me his name then walks off into the darkness. Is my dog telling me something?

    • profile image

      Casey D. 

      2 years ago

      My 1 yr old doxy/beagle mix is exhibiting similar behaviors to this with my mom. I'm seeking help from a behaviorist to try and work through it, but usually my dog will try to nip at my mom (and only my mom) after a few seconds of petting. We've had her 3 months (rescued) and it's happened at least 3 times.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 years ago

      Growls are good, they are a way for dogs to communicate they are uncomfortable before resorting to more serious threats such as snaps and bites, so it's a good thing this dog has been using his warning system. You are in a dog's territory and dogs may not be too comfortable having new people entering their homes. Let the dog associate you with good things. You can try to get some kibble on a visit and then on the next, hold it in your hand and as you walk in, drop it around.Drop some nearby the same area where he growled at you. When you leave, drop some too by the door. Avoid sudden movements (don't toss the kibble, just drop as you walk), avoid direct eye contact and don't walk near resources such as sleeping areas, food bowls and beds in case he is possessive. Please be careful and if you are worried let the owner know and see what options you may have.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I am kinda house sitting for a neighbor thats out of town I go to his house 3 times a day and feed and let the dog out to go potty well for some reason he growled at me and I wasnt even touching him should I be scared that he will bite me he is a husky and has never done this to anyone

    • mathira profile image


      7 years ago from chennai

      Useful tips for pet lovers.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      7 years ago from Deep South, USA

      My dog does not like head pats or, to a lesser degree, hugs, but LOVES tummy tickles! She has no shame about flopping over on her back on the sofa beside anyone and raising her front legs for a possible tummy rub. This is the same dog that will back up if she thinks you are about to pat her on top of the head. However, she doesn't mind a gentle stroke from her forehead across her head and down her neck and back.

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I thought this was called a "personality" not a problem. I know some people who have this issue as well -- I wish they would just mellow out like most of the dogs I know. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      7 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      this is a great HUB. If you think about it, it only makes sense.. I think if we do not like to be patted on the head why would a dog like to be patted? and they can have earaches like we do.. They hurt like we do.. Love this HUB.. I am going to get my sons to read it. I am bookmarking it for them..I VOTED UP AND AWESOME.




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